If you’re an avid follower of the Carolina Hurricanes, then the name Sebastian Aho is one of familiarity. The second-year forward collected 33 points in 41 games after finishing eighth in the Calder voting a year ago. The New York Islanders also have a talented young skater named Sebastian Aho, except he comes from a different mold. A fifth-round selection by the Isles in the 2017 NHL Draft, Aho is a Swedish-born defenseman, who advanced to the NHL quicker than expected after a strong first half in the minor leagues for the Bridgeport Sound Tigers.
“He is one of those guys who is very poised and knows he’s a good player,” Islanders’ head coach Doug Weight said. “He can make plays and made some at the blueline. He’s got that it (factor) and has turned a lot of heads this year. For Aho to be in the conversation to come up when Devon (Towes) got hurt was a surprise,” Weight said. “We loved him in camp, but we didn’t think he would be ready for awhile. He’s still got work to do, but he’s been impressive.”
Aho spent the last four seasons in the Swedish Hockey League, rising into a team leader, while developing a reputation as one of the league’s most well-rounded defenseman. He initially competed in the J20 SuperElit shortly before his 20th birthday and became eligible for the 2014 NHL Draft after splitting the 2013-14 season between juniors and the professional ranks.
Although he possessed the skillset of similarly ranked prospects, teams bypassed Aho for three consecutive drafts, due to his atypical build for a defenseman. The lack of interest in the draft continued to motivate Aho, as he led his Swedish club to playoff appearances in each of his three full SHL seasons and earned a silver medal in his most recent campaign before embarking on his fourth NHL draft.
Since the Islanders did not possess a first-round pick in the 2017 Draft after trading their selection to the expansion Golden Knights, the club looked to identify prospects in the later rounds that could provide depth or possibly provide untapped value. Coming off career-bests in each major statistical category, the Isles chose to take Aho with the 139th overall selection and signed him to a three-year entry-level contract.
The expectations for Aho were adjusting to the North American style of play while maintaining the promise he sustained in the SHL. The Islanders assigned Aho to their AHL affiliate in Bridgeport where he made a seamless transition and emerged as one of the team’s most productive player with nine goals and eleven assists in 20 games. Aho’s immediate impact garnered attention from the organization and put him in line for a possible promotion in the future.
“I feel really comfortable out there,” Aho said. “All of the guys have been really good to me, trying to help me, so I feel comfortable. Getting to play with all of these players and having a staff here makes every day a learning experience.”
The parent club accelerated Aho’s progress after injuries to Calvin De Haan, and Johnny Boychuk left them shorthanded at the blueline. Devon Towes, a fellow defenseman in Bridgeport, appeared as a possible candidate for a call-up, but a season-ending shoulder injury paved the way for Aho, who earned a promotion and made his NHL debut in late December.
“Since he came up last week, there is no panic to him,” captain John Tavares said. “Sometimes guys in their first couple of games tend to be a little jittery and nervous and don’t want to make any mistakes, but he’s come in with a lot of poise and reads the play well with great sense and awareness. We need everybody to make contributions, and it’s great to see him become impactful for us.”
On January 7 against the New Jersey Devils, Aho scored his first career NHL goal and complied his first multi-point effort in a 5-4 shootout victory. The dramatic win snapped a five-game skid for the Islanders, who dropped to last place in the Metropolitan Division after falling on hard times and provides confidence heading into the bye week.
“I’ve dreamed about it since I was a little boy and it was a special moment,” Aho said. “I get to play with some really good players, so I just try to go out there and play as I always do and things will take care of itself. Up here (at the NHL level), I try to do the best that can every day and try to make a point that I should stay.”
Listed at 5’10” and 176 pounds, Aho doesn’t possess the stereotypical size for a defenseman, but makes up for his lack of stature with strong awareness on both ends of the ice and the ability to influence the game in the offensive zone. Due to his experience level in the SHL, Aho adjusts well to the moment and should continue to improve as he becomes acclimated to the nuances of the NHL. With the Islanders undermanned due to injury, the contributions of Aho and his fellow teammates are vital to their continuity and fill major needs.
“You need contributions from everybody over 82 games,” Tavares said. “It cannot always be the same guys playing the hero. I think that’s what makes a good hockey team. You get guys who aren’t expected to make some big plays, and it’s great to see because we have a lot of talent on our team.”